U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
202-366-4000


Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration

Highway History

<< Previous Contents Next >>

The National Old Trails Road

Part 1: The Quest for a National Road

Section 3 of 7

Judge J. M. Lowe


Photo of Judge J. M. Lowe.  Click for larger version.

Judge J. M. Lowe
Click on image for larger version

As the convention neared its end, the Committee on Permanent Organization proposed to designate Dr. Williams as President of the new association. He declined:

While I appreciate more than I can express the courtesy shown me in this Convention, and the action, particularly contrary to my express wishes and desires, of my friends on the Committee on Permanent Organization, there are reasons that I have confided to some of my more closely affiliated friends which make it utterly impossible for me to accept at your hands this signal mark of your confidence in me. If I will not be accused of plagiarism I would say with all the emphasis that I can, that under no circumstances could I accept what you apparently are inclined to offer me, the leadership of a movement that is epoch-making, history-making, in its character.

He suggested an alternative:

If it is left to me to make a nomination in my stead, it would afford me great pleasure to nominate for the presidency of this Association a resident of this city, a man of the highest character, a man influential at the national capital, a man who has served the Missouri Old Trails Association as executive committeeman, a lawyer and statesman whose heart is in this work and who is as thoroughly committed to it as any other man, and who here at this central city, which bears the name of one state and belongs to the other should be located, it seems to me, the president of this association. And I present, in withdrawing my name, thus trespassing upon your courtesy, which I am sure is more than I ought to do, I am withdrawing my name regretfully and appreciatively, in your interest as well as in Mrs. Williams' and my own, if you will allow me to take you into my confidence to that extent, I present to you the name of Judge J. M. Lowe of Kansas City. (Cries of "Good!" and applause.)

The convention elected Judge J. M. Lowe, always referred to by his initials, to be President.

Joseph Macauley Lowe was born in Pendleton County, Kentucky, in 1844. When he was old enough, he joined the Confederate Army and served for several months near the end of the Civil War. He taught school in Greenfield, Indiana, while studying law. He moved to Plattsburg, Missouri, where he practiced law for 15 years, and served as prosecuting attorney of Clinton County for four successive terms.

In Plattsburg, he married Mary Elizabeth McWilliams in 1874. They had two children, a daughter, Mrs. Hughes Bryant of Kansas City, and a son, Mr. J. Robert Lowe of Lees Summit. The couple moved to Kansas City in 1882. Although primarily focused on private activities, he occupied several appointive offices and served as Judge of the County Court of Jackson County. He also served as election commissioner in Kansas City for 6 years, during which time he gained a reputation for fighting dishonesty in politics and at elections, regardless of party.

He had been a fighter for good roads for many years. In an 1897 address to the Southwestern Commercial Congress in Atlanta, Georgia, he spoke about a subject "which has enlisted the thought and energies of the greatest intellects throughout civilization," namely good roads. He discussed and quoted the great leaders who had supported the development of roads, especially the Cumberland Road, in the United States. He said, "Let us no longer quibble over hair-splitting theories of governmental power. Either the General Government has authority to appropriate national revenues to road building, or it has not." He was in no doubt of the answer, namely "that the thing can and shall be done." He explained:

Let us begin where we left off when the "bogy man" of doubtful authority made his appearance, take up the old Cumberland road, or any other road, carry it forward and intersect the Santa Fe trail and stretch one great national highway across the continent. When this is done, "the way" discovered will seem so simple and so easy that we will only marvel at our sloth and go forward in the only rational, feasible, equitable way of road building.

He suggested that, "We must cease regarding road building as a tax, and look upon it as an investment." The Congress had appropriated $300 million for post office buildings. "the necessity for which did not exist," money that could have built "ten great macadam roads from ocean to ocean, and ten from the Lakes to the Gulf." But when good roads advocates asked for a percentage of that amount, "a mere bagatelle," advocates of States rights cry out, "Paternalism."

Be it so; but we shall not halt. We fear this charge even less than we did the equally foolish cry of "unconstitutionality." We are beginning to know our rights, and knowing them we dare maintain them. This question has figured largely in the election of two Presidents, and it may be of equal potency in the election of a third. This is our money ; and we shall not stop until a portion of it is appropriated to the development and enrichment of the country, furnishing employment to thousands of idle hands, and adding millions in value to the wealth and prosperity of the country.

By 1910, Judge Lowe was absorbed in the cause of good roads. Addressing the National Good Roads Convention in Oklahoma City on October 5, 1910, he had begun, "The amount of energy employed on the subject of good roads is out of proportion to the results obtained." After summarizing the history of the Cumberland Road, he addressed a more recent objection to Federal funding for road building:

But it may be said this would be to open wide the "pork barrel"-every congressional district would want a road. It may be replied that, as it is now most congressional districts have a creek or bayou which needs dredging, riprapping, or "snagging," and if road building was added, it would give the average Congressman something to do, and he could always report to his constituents how earnestly he had tried and what he could do next time.

After listing over $441 million in appropriations by Congress over 20 years for rivers and harbors and quoting the good roads planks adopting by the Republican and Democratic conventions before the 1908 presidential election, he restated his argument from the 1897 speech, but with a few modifications:

Both parties having decided "that the thing can and shall be done," it only remains to search and "find the way." This is easy. Begin where we left off when the "bogy man" of doubtful authority made his appearance, take up the old Cumberland Road, carry it forward and intersect the Santa Fe trail and the Oregon trail, and stretch one great national highway across the continent.

He concluded:

What I do insist upon is, that if the policy of internal improvements, which has become the settled policy of the Government, is to continue, then the highways of the country shall share in that system as constituting a vital part thereof, and as such entitled to a square deal. As public highways they constitute a vital place in transportation, and, belonging to the public, they should be constructed and maintained by the public.

Judge Lowe had also proposed a $50 million highway system for Missouri-an astounding sum for the times. He also claimed credit for being the first person in the United States to propose the use of motor vehicle license fees to support highway construction.

In all his public endeavors, Judge Lowe exhibited what one account described as "militant honesty, unselfishness, vision, faith." He was "a foe of inefficiency and lax methods of administration in public office."

After the delegates approved the appointment of Judge Lowe as President, Professor Williams was elected to the specially created post of Advisory Vice President. The name of the organization, which filed for incorporation in the Circuit Court at Kansas City, was the National Old Trails Road Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Association.

With the convention nearly over, Professor Williams called for an acceptance speech by Judge Lowe:

Now the chairman is going to ask--let him be just this moment longer the chairman--in order to cement the tie that binds, in the closing hours of the Convention, after again thanking you for your courtesies to him, that the new president of the National Old Trails Association be escorted to the chair and is going to appoint as a committee to escort Judge Lowe to the chair, Mr. Miller of Kansas and Mr. Faxon of Kansas. (Cries of "Good!" and applause.)

Professor Williams continued:

I present to you gentlemen with my love and thanks, and my congratulations on your new president, with my best wishes for his success, and for your own personal welfare and prosperity, your new president, my friend and yours, a lawyer, a Good Roads promoter, a man whose interest is thoroughly in behalf of the building of this transcontinental highway on the National Old Trails road, Judge J. M. Lowe of Kansas City.

In accepting the Presidency, Judge Lowe began:

I don't know what I ought to say. Of course it is always expected that the recipient of such an honor as you have bestowed upon me, shall return his thanks. As I said to a friend of mine a moment ago, when congratulating me, that it did not impress me that it was congratulations I stood most in need of at this particular hour.

He spoke of the "calamity" of losing Professor Williams' leadership, "but he has presented his reasons in such a way that they made it impossible for us to press it upon him further."

Judge Lowe then discussed his views on highway development:

Now, personally, just one word, because a great deal, I suspect, remains to be done, as most all of you know without my telling you, that in selecting me, you have selected a president who is in favor of good roads. (Applause.) I have reached a point where, perhaps, I have not quite as much patience as I ought to have with men who talk like we ought to go to Congress and, upon bended knee-or, as Shakespeare expresses it, "Crook the pregnant hinges of the knee, where thrift may follow fawning"-and talk about the government extending national aid to road building as something to be petitioned for and begged for. I have gotten way beyond that. I know, and you know, that the national revenues belong to the people. I know, as you know, that these revenues are subject to the action of Congress. I know, and you know, they have been appropriated to all sorts of uses and purposes. Now, this is our money, just as the states' funds are. These representatives in Congress are our servants, or should be, and when we go before them we will demand that this money be appropriated for this purpose. (Applause) . . . .

While we have been meeting in this convention and passing these resolutions, we have already had introduced in the Congress a bill appropriating out of the general revenues of the government moneys sufficient to meet one-half the expense of building the National Old Trails Road across this country. That bill was referred to the Committee on Agriculture, and on yesterday twenty-four states, represented by the Daughters of the American Revolution, were before that Committee, pressing upon the committee its duty with reference to that bill. I have a copy of that bill in my pocket. I have only one. If I had more time I would read it to you. It may not be the wisest or may not be the best; but the point I want to get before you is this, that the National Old Trails Road is the first on record in the Congress of the United States demanding a national system of highways. Now, then, let's see to it that it remains the first.

Of course I am, and I expect you are, in favor of all the bills introduced, about thirty-eight in number. Personally I am in favor of the Underwood bill, and I am in favor of the Cullom bill, and am in fact in favor of all of them and any of them. As to how much Congress should appropriate, this is a detail we will work out when we come to it-whether the Government should assume the entire expense of building it, as I believe it should, or whether the Government should simply aid the states in building it, I don't care a rap about that. I will do business with them on either proposition or in either way. Now gentlemen, this is more than I intended to say to you. I repeat, as I began, that it is absolutely a calamity to this organization that Colonel Williams should be permitted to retire from its presidency. I cannot hope to fill his place--no man can fill his place, in the chair. In the language of Jefferson, when he succeeded [Benjamin] Franklin as minister to Paris, when being congratulated by one who said, "I understand you are to take the place of Dr. Franklin," replied, "No, sir! I can't take the place of Dr. Franklin. No other man can. I succeed Dr. Franklin." That is true at the present time. I cannot fill Col. Williams' place-- no man can. I can only succeed him.

Photo of Jesse Taylor. Click for larger version of photo
Jesse Taylor
Click on image for larger version

The convention also adopted Better Roads as its official organ. Its editor, Jesse Taylor, addressed the members near the end of the session. Although he pointed out that he was not an engineer, he had a word of warning. He stressed, he was not against the automobile ("I don't own one, but I have nothing against the other fellow") and he didn't care whether the route was the Old or New Santa Fe Trail (the Chairman admonished him, "Don't use that phrase again. That is settled."). He explained that hundreds and thousands of people would be heading to the San Francisco Exposition in 1915 in $590 Fords all the way up to $6,000 vehicles weighing 3 or 4 tons:

You are going home and ask the people of your localities to put up money to build roads. You are going to advertise this great National, ocean-to-ocean highway, and invite the four hundred thousand automobilists from one end of this nation to the other, and the people who own mules and horses, to come and travel on that road. Now, we are warning you, when you build it, build it right. Wake up now!

He mentioned earth, gravel without proper drainage, and waterbound macadam. He wasn't advocating any specific surface:

But I want to warn you now, when you go home and start this sentiment for building a road, take along with it the sentiment for the proper construction of roads, and build them right. Because, if you don't, when the automobiles going to the great celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal in San Francisco have run thirty days over the thing, they will have the whole State of Kansas cursing you because you have wasted their money in improper construction. You will have the whole of any state through which it may pass cursing you because you wasted their money in improper construction.

He urged them to study proper construction methods, as well as proper upkeep. To applause, he cited the French system of road patrols:

What I want to admonish you to do in these few moments is to build your roads right, and I want to warn you against improper construction and a rebuke from the people which will come to you if you build this Old Trail in a careless way.

Professor Williams, still acting as Chairman, ended the convention with these closing words:

I wish to express to you again and finally my personal appreciation of your kindness to the Chairman for your courtesy to him personally, and to say that in this wonderful convention, with more than five hundred delegates representing eight states of the American Union, we have launched a movement that, in my opinion, will establish the first transcontinental wagon road on the Old Trails Route across the continent.

Miss Gentry's Testimony

Miss Gentry had not been able to attend the convention. She and other members of the D. A. R. were in Washington, D.C., to testify before the Committee on Agriculture of the House of Representatives on April 19. The committee was considering H. R. 17919, Representative Borland's bill calling for Federal construction of the National Old Trails Road.

Before introducing Miss Gentry at the hearing, Representative Borland read a telegram to her from the convention delegates in Kansas City:

Old Trails Road convention assembled, 500 strong, in Kansas City; acknowledge greetings of the Daughters of the American Revolution Old Trails Road committee in session in Washington, and again acknowledge our obligation to you for having been first in promoting what we believe and hope will shortly become the first great transcontinental highway over the historic and scenic route along the old trails of the pioneers. Walter Williams, Chairman.

Representative Borland then introduced Miss Gentry, " the lady who, I believe, is the originator of this idea . . . ." In reprinting her testimony, Better Roads (August 1912) referred to Miss Gentry as "Chairman Old Trails Road Committee, National Society, D.A.R."

Miss Gentry's comments emphasized the difference between seeking good roads for commercial interests and seeking them as a memorial to the men and women who traveled our historic trails:

A countrywoman said to me: "My men folks have left me stuck in the mud all my life. I am mighty thankful the D.A.R. are trying to pull me out." While individually we are concerned with this phase of good roads, as an organization we are dedicated to the historic and patriotic side, and are here to urge that a great National ocean-to-ocean highway be built as a memorial to the pioneer patriots of the Nation.

Miss Gentry explained the original conception of a highway along the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, as well as along General Kearny's trail to California during the Mexican War. She added that the plan included an extension through Baltimore, Philadelphia, and into New York along the roads George Washington traveled on his inaugurals as President of the United States.

She contrasted the D.A.R. project with other proposed highway projects:

There are many projected roads at present; the Meridian Road, proposed to run from the Gulf to Canada, bisects our road at Kearney, Nebraska, and also at McPherson, Kansas; another road is the capital-to-capital, or the Quebec-Miami Road, which intersects our road at Washington, D.C. The Natchez Trace is a feeder into our road, as is also the Chicago to St. Louis Road, to be called the "Lincoln Highway"; the river-to-river road across Iowa connects Chicago with our road again at Council Bluffs. All of these and many other roads will eventually be built for commercial advantage; for educational, historic, and patriotic motives, we urge that a distinctive scenic highway should be dedicated, built, and maintained by the National Government . . . . I want to say very frankly to you that my interest and the interest of the Daughters of the American Revolution in the National highway is purely historic; purely sentimental and patriotic . . . . [O]ur interest is not a vague sentiment, but an insatiable passion . . . .

Let the D. A. R., who conceived and initiated this movement, bind with homespun cords the realized past to the ideal future of the Nation . . . .

Near her conclusion, Miss Gentry explained the nickname of the project:

In Samoa the natives have built a memorial road to [novelist and traveler] Robert Louis Stevenson, which they call "The Road of Loving Hearts." Our plan also is to make a road of loving hearts; and it will have not only that interest, but it will have commercial and economic value.

Congress did not approve Borland's bill or any other bills supporting specific highway proposals. However, the Post Office Appropriations Act for fiscal year 1913, enacted on August 24, 1912, authorized the Department of Agriculture and the Post Office Department to conduct an experimental program for construction of post roads. The act also established a Joint Congressional Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads to study the Federal-aid question and report to Congress on it. It would be headed by Senator Jonathan Bourne, Jr., of Oregon.

On The Road

On May 15, 1912, Colonel Potter left Los Angeles for a trip to New York in a car provided by The Los Angeles Times. According to an article in the September 1912 issue of Better Roads, he was accompanied in the "Los Angeles Times Special" by correspondent Bert C. Smith and a chauffeur, John Zak.

In Kansas City, Judge Lowe joined them for the trip to Wheeling, West Virginia:

Public meetings were held all along the route, branches of the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Association and National Old Trails Road Association were organized at many places, and much interest was aroused that will make sentiment for the early improvement of the Old National Road and the Santa Fe Trail. "This country ought to have an ocean-to-ocean road which is in condition at all seasons of the year," said Judge J. M. Lowe. "The route we propose is the only one which will make this possible."

He described the route, including the western end along the "old Sunset Trail" to Los Angeles, the route adopted by the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Association.

During an address in Cambridge, Ohio, on July 6, 1912, Judge Lowe focused on the authority of the Federal Government to appropriate funds for national highways. As he would on many occasions, he went back to the Constitution, which delegated specific powers "to establish post-offices and post roads" to the Federal Government. While the modern Congress, he said, may have forgotten that the phrase "to establish" meant "to build," there was no doubt in the Congress in the days when it included men such as James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers. Judge Lowe cited the history of the National Road, initiated under a law signed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1806. Bills for its construction and maintenance were approved by later Presidents even though "this exercise of power was not without opposition." He explained:

So jealous were the people of what they considered the rights of the States, and so fearful were they of the encroachment of Congress, strange as it may seem, the great and logical expounder of the Constitution, the greatest stickler for strict construction then living, or who has since lived, John C. Calhoun, stood shoulder to shoulder with Henry Clay in defense of the exercise of this power.

To those who argued that the Federal Government does not have the authority to finance road building, he cited Federal land grants for railroads, and appropriated funds to improve rivers and harbors or build the Roosevelt Dam or the Panama Canal. Where, he asked, is the constitutional authority for those expenditures? "A spectacular performance was pulled off recently of sending the navy around the world, which formed no useful public purpose and cost $14,000,000." This funding could have been used for the National Old Trails Road, which "experts" said would cost only $12 million. He cited the appropriation of $200 million a year for pensions, "and the only defense for this vast expenditure made by the politicians is that it puts the money back into circulation. So would the building of roads, and at the same time give employment to labor and add millions in value to the wealth of the country."

The cooperation of the two organizations was cited on June 5, when John Mitchell, President of the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Association, delivered a speech in Library Park, California. He referred to the December 1911 Tri-State Road Convention held in Phoenix at the request of the Governors of Arizona, California, and New Mexico:

[W]e are going to work with the people east of the Colorado River, for while our organization, originally formed in December last, consisted only of California, Arizona, and New Mexico, our cause has so interested and pleased the people of the other States that we now have linked to our chain the States of Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. And if you doubt the earnestness and enthusiasm of the people of those States, you should read of the proceedings at the Kansas City convention wherein that proud old organization, the Santa Fe Old Trails Road Association generously changed its name as suggested by our delegate, Mr. Dell M. Potter, so that today that organization which is building and improving roads from St. Louis, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, is now known as the National Old Roads Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Association.

American Road Congress, 1912

Judge Lowe and Mrs. Donald McLean, Honorary President-General of the D.A.R., were scheduled to address a road congress sponsored by the American Association for Highway Improvement in the Greek Temple on the Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey (September 30-October 5, 1912). Logan Page had formed the association in 1910 as an umbrella organization for all elements of the Good Roads Movement to consider a broad range of issues, in contrast to the AAA and American Road Builders Association, which reflected their backing interests primarily by trying to influence legislation. In 1912, the association changed its name to the American Highway Association.

Although Judge Lowe was unable to attend, his speech was read to the delegates. He described the history of the links in the Old Trails Road and the trail association's motto: "The biggest thing ever conceived. The easiest thing to do." He added:

The Daughters of the American Revolution, inspired by the splendid labor and achievements of those early patriots, have led the way in this great work, and are cheering us on to a full fruition of our hopes and our labors. We shall not fail. I look with enraptured vision to the time, not distant, when this great highway, beginning at tidewater on the Atlantic, shall be rebuilt across the continent, to end only in the golden sands of the Pacific, lighted throughout by a streak of electricity, and dedicated once more to the descendants of the heroes and heroines who baptized it in the blood and tears of a nation's birth.

Mrs. McLean followed his presentation with a speech that Good Roads summarized in its issue of November 2, 1912:

[She] said she had always been interested in old trails and that although she was quite willing to leave the securing of the money for road improvement to men, she, and the organization which she represented, wanted the expenditure directed rightly. She told of the work done by the women of Missouri in marking old trails in that state and urged that in the construction of roads the consideration of sentiment and patriotism be not overlooked.

Colonel Potter was present for a session on "How to Encourage the 'See America First' Idea." The session began with a speech by Preston Belvin, president of the Virginia State Automobile Association, on the history of road building, historic roads, and scenic beauties of Virginia. North Carolina's Dr. Joseph Hyde Pratt, president of the Southern Appalachian Good Roads Association, addressed the general topic of "See America First." He explained that the wonders of Europe could be reached by first-class highways, resulting in large amounts of American tourist dollars leaving American shores. If America built comparable highways, he said, those dollars would stay in America, and no area would benefit more than the Southern Appalachian region. He discussed the "Crest of the Blue Ridge Highway" that was being planned as a scenic road rather than a commercial road.

Potter spoke on the advantages of the transcontinental road being planned by the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Association from New York to Los Angeles. It should, he felt, be built by the Federal Government, and it should be built first. Such roads were essential to the economy. He thought three transcontinental roads and three north-south roads were what was needed. He closed by saying that if America did not have good roads, American money would continue going to Europe, which would use the revenue to maintain its roads.

The session concluded with a presentation by Captain H. Z. Osborne, Secretary of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, who discussed Los Angeles County's efforts to improve its roads, and Frank D. Lyon, Secretary of the New York State Automobile Association, who described the State's color marking scheme for certain main roads. He also expressed support for the Federal-aid concept.

<< Previous | Contents | Next >>

Updated: 10/16/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000